Goodreads: The Immortalists
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Family Saga, Magical Realism
If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?
It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.
The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.
“Our language is our strength.
Thoughts have wings.”
It was difficult for me to write this review so apologies if it’s more nonsensical blabber than anything. I really enjoyed this touching novel about family and death. It sounds morose and it certainly isn’t the most fast paced storytelling, but as the story dove deeper into each characters’ life, I found that I couldn’t put the book down and very quickly sped through the pages. The Immortalists is a family saga that explores faith and the idea of destiny/fate. It asks readers the timeless question: if you could learn when/how you die, would you do it?
“She knew that stories did have the power to change things: the past, and the future, even the present. She had been an agnostic since graduate school, but if there was one tenet of Judaism with which she agreed, it was this: the power of words. They weaseled under door cracks and through keyholes. They hooked into individuals and wormed through generations.”
Beginning in 1969, on a muggy summer day in New York City, we follow the four Gold children as they make their way to meet a notorious Gypsy fortune teller, who they’ve been told can tell you the exact date of your death. One by one, they go in to meet her and all come out of the apartment visibly shaken, silently crying and obviously changed. By silent agreement, they never discuss (in detail) what they learned about themselves.
Following this introduction, the story is divided into four sections for each of the children, starting with Simon, and followed by Klara, Daniel, and Varya. Through each section, Chloe Benjamin explores the power of words and makes us question whether destiny is truly predetermined or if we hold the power to change our own fate. The siblings cope with what they’ve learned in very different ways, and with each you so deeply feel the turmoil, disbelief, hope, and despair that is weaved into their experiences. Although some of the plot was fairly predictable and many incidences were incredibly bizarre and required you to suspend your disbelief, I found the topic incredibly fascinating and became too invested in the siblings’ lives to really be bothered by it. There were elements from each of the siblings that I could relate to—Simon’s restlessness, Klara’s depression, Daniel’s devotion to family, and Varya’s bookishness and ability to detach from life—but I connected the most with Daniel. I know that a lot people liked his character the least, but his deep love for family and also his inability to appropriately express himself is something that I can relate to very well. The way that Chloe Benjamin writes about familial relationships is so real and raw, it was impossible to not reflect on my own relationship with my siblings and parents while reading (especially Daniel and Varya’s sections), and it gave me bittersweet but also warm feelings.
“What do you want?…and if [she] answered him honestly she would have said this: To go back to the beginning. She would tell her thirteen-year-old self not to visit the woman. To her twenty-five-year old self: Find Simon, forgive him…She’d tell herself she would die, she would die, they all would…She’d tell herself that what she really wanted was not to live forever, but to stop worrying…”
What would you do if you knew when you’d die? Would you submit to the knowledge that your time is running out but live your life by diving into everything head first and without thought or care? Would you live every minute afraid of what was to come and drown yourself in poison in order to forget everything that you know? Would you live your life in denial or would you dive so deep into the study of life in an attempt to understand how to prolong it, that you forget to live your own? By the time we got to the last section I was truly questioning whether what happened to the characters were a result of the actions they took because of their belief in their fate or whether it was fate itself playing out. Or are these two things so intertwined that it’s impossible to tell the difference?
This was a very moving read that poses an intriguing question on a fascinating topic that made me really reflect on my life and how I’m living it. I think it’s a read that will stay with me for quite some time…
Have you read Ink and Bone or is it on your TBR?